Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: Chadwick Boseman’s Oscar Card?

Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman Shine in ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’

Viola Davis

David Lee / Netflix
The first big screen adaptation of the late playwright August Wilson‘s 1982 Broadway play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom — part of his ten-play “Pittsburgh Cycle” series — directed by Tony winner George C. Wolfe from a screenplay by Tony winner Ruben Santiago Hudson.
It is produced by Denzel Washington, who was Oscar-nominated for acting in and producing the 2016 movie version of Wilson’s play Fences.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is in cinemas from December 4 and on Netflix from 18 December.
Ma Rainey’s unfolds over the course of one afternoon in jazz-age Chicago, where the title character, also known as “the mother of blues,” has traveled with her younger female lover and her nephew to meet up with her band of black musicians and make a record for a white producer, facilitated by her white agent.
As the play unravels, she and the other express their anxieties and grievances over various issues related to the roadblocks for black artists of the time.
While Santiago-Hudson and Wolfe have tried to “open up” the play for the big screen, the film still betrays its theatrical origins. 
Viola Davis’ three Broadway appearances, each in different decades, were in Wilson plays. She won Tonys for 2001’s King Hedley II and the 2010 revival of Fences, as well as an Oscar for the film version. 
In Ma Rainey’s, she gives one of her most colorful performances as Rainey, sporting gold teeth, thick makeup, wardrobe padding, sweat and plenty of attitude. She doesn’t do her own singing in the film, save for one number, but I had to inquire to know for sure, which means the filmmakers did a good job. She and Wolfe previously teamed up on the 2008 film Nights in Rodanthe.
Chadwick Boseman, who passed of colon cancer in August while the film was in post-production (the film is dedicated to him), delivers some of the film’s most powerful monologues, particularly one about his mother.Each member of the ensemble, Colman DomingoMichael Potts and Glynn Turman, has his own moment.Oscar ProspectsBoseman, who is also a contender in the supporting category for Da 5 Bloods, could become the eighth posthumous acting Oscar nominee, and would be the third posthumous acting Oscar winner after Peter Finch for Network 44 years ago and Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight 12 years ago.The play, and now the movie, artists of color have been treated in the past and present. Davis herself has said, “A huge motivating factor with me is feeling like I’m not valued,” which is why it was a treat for her to play a performer who knows her worth and won’t accept anything.We see Black musicians hanging around a white-owned Chicago studio one stiflingly hot day in the 1920s, waiting for the legendary blues singer Gertrude “Ma” Rainey to show up with her entourage so they can cut an album. The lead track is expected to be her live hit, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and the drama imagines a certain pushy trumpeter in the band named Levee angling for his own version to be recorded. A simmering argument about how this song is to be arranged and performed forms the basis of a confrontation about race, sex and power.Davis makes a splashy entrance, accompanied with her lovers and court favorites, complaining about the temperature, her painful feet and the incompetence of the studio chiefs.

Boseman, in his final performance, plays the fiercely talented but insecure Levee, crucified by a childhood experience of racist violence and dreaming of fronting his own band.

Davis and Boseman are each the immovable object and irresistible force.

Both are concerned with their feet. Levee has just spent his money on a fancy pair of shiny shoes and he is always showing them off, hopping and dancing around like a little kid.

Levee has prepared an ingenious new version of Black Bottom that downplays her slow, bluesy vocals and gives a more demanding, uptempo orchestration for the band mdmbers: Toledo (Glynn Turman), Cutler (Colman Domingo), Slow Drag (Michael Potts).

This shaddy white manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and studio boss Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) jump at the opportunity of make it a crossover hit.

Ma furiously rejects the new version, fearing she might be upstaged by the cocky Levee who wants to use her prestige to launching his own stardom.

The only male she’s willing to showcase is her teenage nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown), despite the fact that he stutters.

Then there’s Ma’s sexy girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), who is enamored of Levee.

Contest of wills?

Ma Rainey possesses the commanding talent, so everything depends on her, but the band is aware of her limited ability to appeal to white spectators.

Levee is younger, talented, and boasting new ideas about music, but he is controlled by the management, resulting in tragedy. Violence might be ignited by the band’s derision at Levee’s sycophantic attitude to these white chiefs. It triggers Levee’s own memories of racist violence and humiliation.

The set-piece speeches are contrived, but they are delivered with such powerful intensity that they ignite the screen, as they did on stage.

The film’s final scene is both grim and prophetic in suggesting how black talents like Levee’s would continue to be exploited and how black culture would be appropriated for generations to come.

Boseman’s performance is ultra-emotionally naked in conveying a gifted musician, who is sacrificed on the altar of his own past.